Thursday, December 20, 2012

In which I do what Mom says (as I always do...eventually)

Ever since I started writing stories about the people in the sorta-mythical town of Skookum in November 2010, my mom has been asking for more Skookum stories.

She's pretty excited about the Endurance 101 book, of course--she's my mom. Of course she's proud of my first book. She's excited about the second book too (it will be out in Spring 2013).

But Skookum is the book that my mom really wants to read, so she's been asking (nicely) me to write it...for about 2 years.  I've written a few more stories for that book, but one character in particular would not get out of my brain:  Lulu Rubidoux.

Lulu isn't me, and I'm not her. I'd kill for her long curly red hair, but I'd never wear the shoes she wears to work--ugh, those heels!  We do have a lot in common, though...including a bad attitude towards the winter holiday season.

Here's a story about that.

If you like it, be sure to thank my mom.  I wrote it for her.

Lulu Rubidoux's Christmas Wish


When Lulu Rubidoux and her boyfriend Reg Wilson were 8-year-old boys back in Red Truck, Idaho, they had an experience together that defined each of their lives in completely different ways:  they saw Santa Claus on a department store loading dock.

They had each seen Santa, separately, earlier in the day when their moms had dressed them up in red and green outfits that matched perfectly with the red and green outfits of their siblings and dragged them to the department store downtown to have a photo taken.  As a reward for holding still and smiling for the camera, each kid was granted a quick audience with the big guy. 

Reg doesn’t remember what he asked Santa to bring; that part of the day was not important to him.  But Lulu, who was called Adam in those days, never forgot her conversation with Santa.  She asked for the pink checked dress in the window of that very store, with shiny pink shoes and a hair ribbon to match. 

Santa’s beard and mustache covered most of his kindly pink face, but though she didn’t understand it at the time, Lulu still remembers the single tear in his eye when he heard her request. 

“My dear,” said Santa kindly, “Santa will help you get what you want, but it might not be this year, okay?”  Lulu believed in Santa, believed in magic and wishes and Christmas miracles with all her heart in those days.  How else could she survive?

A few hours later, when the photo sessions were over and Lulu and Reg had been turned loose for an hour so their moms could have lunch without them at the department store diner, they learned the truth about Santa.  Inside the store was stuffy and boring, full of screaming kids and their exhausted moms and lots of pretty, shiny displays of merchandise that children were not allowed to touch.  So Lulu and Reg had, naturally, moved their game of hide-and-seek out of doors to the parking lot. 

The car park was an excellent place to hide, and the game lasted almost all of the allotted hour…but then Reg decided to hide in back of the store.  When Lulu finally found him, and they were headed back to the front entrance (the long way ‘round, of course) to collect their moms, they saw Santa.

Actually, they saw Santas. 

There were two Santa Clauses reclining in woven-web lawn chairs outside the delivery entrance of the store.  One Santa was the guy that Lulu and Reg had seen on the red velvet throne granting wishes that morning.  He was smoking a cigarette and talking to another guy who might have been his brother:  another fat guy with a long white beard who was eating a submarine sandwich.  Both were wearing red velvet pants and shiny black boots.  The other Santa has his jacket un-buttoned, but Lulu and Reg’s Santa had his jacket all the way off, showing a mermaid tattoo on his left arm peeking out from under a pit-stained white t-shirt underneath that advertised a local drycleaner. 

Clearly, the Santas were taking a break. 

It had never occurred to Lulu or Reg that Santa Claus, who could fly around the entire world in a single night, would need a break after just a few hours of talking to children. 

And yet, there they were.

The two eavesdroppers weren’t close enough to hear the words of the conversation, but it didn’t matter.   What had been seen could not be un-seen. 

Lulu immediately realized the significance of the discovery. Her magical wish would not be granted by Santa Claus.  She would find the same kind of stuff under the tree that she always found:  toy trucks, baseball cards, and if she was lucky, a book.  She knew that her family didn’t understand her desire for pretty dresses, and now she knew that Santa was no help.

Lulu understood, in a single moment, that if she were ever going to have pretty dresses and matching shoes and cute little earrings that caught the light when she turned her head, she was going to have to get them herself. 

In that instant, she resolved to do it.

Reg could not stop staring at the Santas.  His ephiphany was entirely different from Lulu’s. 

Reg realized something momentous in that single instant of seeing off-duty Santas.  He realized that Santa Claus isn’t a person…but rather, that Santa is a job.  And, after eight years of persistent questioning by parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults, Reg finally knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

That was 40 years ago, or as Lulu likes to say, “Long ago and far away from here.”  Both of the kids who spied on Santa on the loading dock of that Idaho department store would be pleased at the way things turned out:  Lulu wears a pink dress to work at least once a week, and not one of her friends and neighbors would deny that pink is Lulu’s color—unusual for a redhead, but she makes it work.  

Reg, in his turn, spends most of the year running his bookstore and fill dirt business…but every year in late November, he makes a trip with Lulu to Chaza Cheveaux’s salon.  There, they sit in neighboring chairs while Chaza adds color to Lulu’s brilliant red tresses, and bleaches Reg’s salt-and-pepper hair, eyebrows, beard and mustache to a saintly white in preparation for his “real job” as he calls it: playing Santa Claus.

Reg has a good-paying steady gig with the Fishers of Men, who decorate a 50-foot gillnetter with lights and tinsel and take it out on December weekends to deliver gifts and music to the isolated fishing communities on the coast.  He does quick appearances each year for churches, clubs, schools and charities of Pilchuck County. 

But Reg’s favorite Santa gig is the Food Bank Christmas delivery run.  During the weeks before the big day, Santa Reg and all of the Skookum fire department volunteers spend their evenings canvassing the neighborhoods of Skookum asking for food, toy and money donations to support the county food bank.   Back at the food bank warehouse, the firefighters and their families sort donations into boxes and bags, all carefully labeled with the names and addresses of local families. 

Then, every year at noon on Christmas Eve, everything is loaded onto trucks, and Santa Reg himself delivers the food and gifts.

Not just to the homes where children live, oh no.  Reg discovered years ago that a visit from Santa Claus is something that can bring smiles to the faces of people of all ages, from all over the world.  His fire-fighting helpers carry the heavy boxes and bags containing the turkeys and canned green beans, but Santa Reg is present for every single delivery at every single house on Christmas Eve.  It’s exhausting work, and Reg usually sleeps until noon on Christmas Day, but he wouldn’t want to miss a moment of it.

Lulu loves Reg, and she loves to watch him at work when he’s doing a Santa gig, but she is quick to correct well-meaning strangers if they call her “Mrs. Claus.”  

“I’m not Mrs. Santa,” she tells them firmly.  “I might be a helpful elf every now and again, but I am not part of this Claus thing.”  

Though her life in Skookum is full of comfort and joy, she clearly remembers that revelation from Red Truck, Idaho.  In the back of her heart, Lulu Rubidoux has never forgotten nor forgiven Santa Claus for not helping her through the transition.

Until last year.

Last year was different, because last year it was Lulu’s turn to help Santa.  Not in a “helpful elf” kind of way, and not even in a “Mrs. Claus” kind of way.   

Here’s how it happened:

Monday-before-Christmas, Reg crashed the Sleigh.

He hit a patch of black ice on his drive home from sorting goods at the food bank, and the bright red all-wheel drive minivan decorated with twinkling lights and a shining red hood ornament on the “nose” did a 360-degree twirl on the road, narrowly missed the sign advertising the Godiva Riders’ fundraising pancake breakfast, and slid in graceful slow-motion down into the deep drainage ditch on the north side of Kokanee Street.  Stuck the rig so deeply in mud that it took the combined efforts of two tow trucks and Bud Hambletonian’s matched team of cart horses to pull it back out again.  

Reg was okay, but it would take more than mere makeup to disguise the black eye and seven stitches across his nose.

“I look like Frankenstein’s monster, not Santa Claus!” he wailed to Lulu when they got home from the emergency room that night.   And, she had to admit, he was right.  Using red and green thread to stitch up the wounds had seemed like a festive idea at the time, but in retrospect, Santa Reg looked like he’d gotten into a bar brawl with a reindeer.

“Oh my stars and rainbows,” said Chaza Cheveaux when they entered the salon the next morning.  “I’m not sure I can fix this.” 

Lulu made coffee while Chaza booted up his laptop and started Skyping requests for advice to theatrical friends around the world.  They had to switch to decaf after several hours of trying out possible solutions.  The wound on Reg’s face was puffy and tender, and as Chaza tactfully said, “disinclined to acquiesce.” 

Finally, after Lulu returned from Skookum Hardware with a big bag of eclectic supplies and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for moral support, Reg’s team of supporters fashioned a new layer of “skin” made from theatrical putty, rubber cement and plumbing tape.  This was secured delicately over the stitches with a mixture of spirit gum and some other ingredient that smelled strongly of peppermint. Painted to match Reg’s natural skin tones, it hid the stitches well enough for low-light Santa Claus appearances, as long as Reg didn’t need to talk or laugh or move his face much.

All afternoon, he practiced in front of the mirror, trying to make his eyes twinkle without moving his eyebrows.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Just try saying “ho-ho-ho” without moving your cheeks. 

But Reg was determined. 

That evening, he suited up early and applied the false skin over his stitches before heading out to the Skookum Woodchuck Elementary PTA party.  It felt weird, but it worked. 

“I just had them turn down the lights a bit, and none of the kids even noticed,” he told Lulu triumphantly.  “I think, when people are expecting to see Santa, they see Santa, no matter what he really looks like.  Maybe it’s part of the magic.” 

With only one more day before Christmas, Santa Reg was feeling confident.  His bag was packed, his suit padding was stuffed, and his face was holding together.  The food bank trucks were crammed so full of food and gifts that the drivers had to lash the tailgates closed with bungee cords.  It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.

And then, Reg started to sneeze.

Who could have guessed that Santa Claus was allergic to peppermint oil?

Lulu tried mixing up new batches of adhesive, but it was no use:  peppermint essence had soaked into the false rubber skin, and whenever he brought it near his face, uncontrollable sneezing fits ensued.  They tried building another false skin, but by that time Reg’s skin had swelled in allergic response to the peppermint oil. 

It was no use. Instead of the usual jolly pink, his complexion was now mixture of angry red hives and bluish black bruising, and he couldn’t stop sneezing. 

“I can’t go like this,” Reg wheezed.  “The Health Department would have a fit.  We’ll just have to find another Santa Claus.”

Reg’s address book was full other Santas.  There was a tall, skinny veterinarian Santa in Pilchuck who did photo shoots at animal shelters.  There was a short fat Santa in Riverbend who could put any kid's name into a silly rhyming limerick.  There was a Cowboy Santa up in Klahowya, a German-speaking Santa in New Wuppertal, an African-American Santa in Cheechako, and a Wheelchair Santa in Hyak. 

There were Santas everywhere…but none of them could do the Skookum Food Bank Christmas Eve run.  Veterinarian Santa was doing emergency surgery on a Rottweiler who had swallowed part of a talking teddy bear.  Limerick Santa was in hospital recovering from a triple bypass.  Cowboy Santa had a broken leg and bruised ribs after flying off a young horse who objected to jingle bells.  The other Santas were already booked. 

Reg hung up the phone in despair. 

And then he looked at Lulu.

Lulu Rubidoux, his friend and companion and the love of his life, who supported his Christmas fun but resolutely stayed out of it. 

Lulu, who had issues with Santa. 

Lulu…who would fit into the suit.

She saw him looking at her.

“No way,” she said.  “I gave up dressing in men’s clothing a long time ago, and I’m not going back now.”

Reg looked at her a little longer.  Then he offered her a chocolate-covered cherry. 

“I don’t think you need to dress as a man,” he told her.  “Remember?  When people are expecting to see Santa, they see Santa.  It doesn’t matter what he looks like—or she.  And who says that Santa is a guy?  All you need is a red hat…and a little magic.”

He took her by the hand, and pressed something plush into it.  “Here,” he said, “take my hat.”


When Lulu made the Christmas Eve deliveries with the food bank volunteers, she expected people to laugh, or at least to ask why Santa Claus was wearing a pink-and-white dress with matching pink shoes under the red plush jacket and hat. 

But nobody did.  They didn’t see Lulu Rubidoux standing in the doorway, bellowing out the hearty “Ho-Ho-Ho” that Reg had taught her on the drive down to the food bank warehouse.  Children’s faces sparkled bright as tinsel, and they gave her kisses and shy smiles. Parents grinned and pumped her hand in welcome. Everyone saw Santa Claus, and they all believed.

Lulu couldn’t stop smiling. 

The last stop of the night was at the home of a new food bank client.  He was an older man, new to Skookum, the driver told Lulu.  Just moved here from Ohio?  Iowa?  One of those places.  He wasn’t expecting them.  The landlady had called the office when he moved to town last week, to let them know that her new tenant was going to need help to get through the winter.

When the big truck pulled into the driveway, they could see the man through the living room window, stringing a lonely strand of colored lights on a scrawny tree opposite the woodstove.   His bald head was shiny pink from the exertion, but his smile was broad when he answered the door and invited them in.  He apologized that he hadn’t had time to bake cookies for his unanticipated guests, who were hauling boxes and bags of canned goods, dried pasta, and fresh vegetables into the tiny kitchen.   

Then suddenly his round face lit up as he remembered something.  Trotting to the little tree, he pulled a package out and ripped off the wrapping paper.

“From my granddaughter back in Idaho,” he explained.  “She gives me chocolate-covered cherries every year.  I’m not supposed to have them, you understand.  Doc says diabetes and chocolate is a bad mix.  If I share with you, I won’t be tempted to eat them all myself.”

The food bank helpers solemnly passed the elegant box around, and each selected a single candy.  When the box came to Santa Lulu, she took a chocolate, and then offered the box back to their host.

As he reached towards her, she could see a mermaid tattoo peeking out from under his pit-stained t-shirt. 

Lulu Rubidoux will never forget that night. 

She will always remember the single tear in the old man’s eye as he pulled her into a warm, rough hug.  She will always remember hugging him back, and thinking that, after all, Santa had granted her
her childhood Christmas wish.  It had taken a long time.  She had done a lot of the work herself.

As it turned out, all she needed to complete her pretty pink outfit was a red hat. 

And a bit of magic.



--December, 2012